A banker, and much more besides : Henri Cernuschi (1821-1896)
08.12.2014 | Group
An Italian revolutionary…
Enrico (before later adopting the French equivalent of his first name) Cernuschi was born in Milan in 1821. After studying in Milan and Pavia, he obtained a licence to practice law in 1846. A man of fiery temperament and true heart, as some of his economist colleagues would later describe him, he took part in an uprising in Milan against the Austrian overlords in 1848. He then left for Rome, where he was elected in 1849 to the Assembly of the new-born – and short-lived – Roman Republic. He was arrested, tried and twice acquitted in 1850, before leaving for exile in France.
…who became a financier and economist
At first Cernuschi survived in Paris by giving Italian lessons and working as a copyist, while at the same time learning languages and studying economic and banking subjects. In 1852, he joined Crédit mobilier, a highly-reputed real estate specialist bank set up by the Pereire brothers. There he rose rapidly, eventually obtaining a seat on the Board of Directors. Then in 1858, when regulations on the meat trade had just been relaxed, Cernuschi went into the butchery business, a venture which unfortunately turned out to be a fiasco.
In 1865, he published a major work entitled "Mécanique de l’échange" ("Mechanism of Exchange"), in which he set out his arguments against what he called "presumptive gold" – i.e. fiduciary currency. He was a passionate supporter of bimetallism (i.e. a monetary standard based on both gold and silver). His links with economists and businessmen led to him becoming one of the founding directors, alongside Adrien Delahante and Edmond Joubert, of the Banque de Paris, which set up shop at 3 rue d’Antin in Paris in 1869. This bank merged in 1872 with the Amsterdam-based Nederlandsche Credit- en Deposito Bank to form Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas, later known as Paribas. However, Henri Cernuschi had already left the bank in 1870 to fight on an entirely different front.
The Republican struggle in France
In 1870, Cernuschi bought a majority stake in the Republican journal "Le Siècle" and financially supported the committee working to defeat the motion in favour of Napoleonic-style imperial rule in France, which was put to a national referendum that year. For this political activity he was forced into exile in April by the Emperor Napoleon III. However, the Second French Empire collapsed not long afterwards and Cernuschi was recalled from his short exile, just in time to attend the official proclamation of the Third Republic at the Paris City Hall on 4 September. He was an active member of the Commission for Essential Provisions during the 1870-71 siege of Paris by the Prussian army, and was made a French citizen on 29 January 1871.
Collector and patron of the arts
However, Cernuschi had been profoundly affected by the tragic events of the Paris Commune, not least the death of the